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Maureen Reagan, 60, Dies of Cancer

Medicine: Ex-president's daughter crusaded against Alzheimer's.

August 09, 2001|JANE E. ALLEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maureen Reagan, who as the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan raised national awareness of Alzheimer's disease, the memory-robbing disorder that gradually forced her father's exit from public life, died Wednesday of malignant melanoma. She was 60.

The political activist, commentator and author died peacefully in her Granite Bay, Calif., home near Sacramento, said her husband, Dennis C. Revell.

Reagan's battle with the deadly skin cancer, diagnosed in 1996, was private at first. But she broke her silence about her ordeal in 1998 after a yearlong course of treatment that pushed the disease into remission. In late 2000 the disease was found to have spread and she began aggressive treatment at the John Wayne Cancer Center at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica.

Doctors had hoped to put the disease into remission again with a multi-pronged assault of chemotherapy and other drugs. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is incurable once it has spread and patients generally live six to 12 months. Each year, 40,000 new cases are diagnosed and 8,000 Americans die from it.

Released from St. John's after nearly four months, Reagan returned to her home in Northern California. In May, however, tests showed that the cancer had progressed. Lesions showed in bones of her right arm, liver and right ribs. She was admitted to Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael after experiencing periodic spasms and mild seizures over the Fourth of July. An extensive MRI found lesions in both sides of her brain. She was released from the hospital on July 23 but scheduled to undergo weekly chemotherapy.

The oldest of the former president's four children, Reagan embraced many different roles during her lifetime, including entertainer, political analyst, political candidate, talk show host and author. With her sparkling, round eyes and prominent cheekbones, she often looked like a blond, pixieish version of her mother, actress Jane Wyman.

She devoted most of her last years to raising awareness of the debilitating, fatal disease that made her father the most famous Alzheimer's patient in the world. As a board member and top spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Assn., she lobbied for more research money and early medical intervention and raised millions of dollars to combat the malady, which affects about 4 million Americans.

She often put her father's illness and her obligations to the Alzheimer's Assn. ahead of her own health, postponing medical care so she could be closer to the former president or maintain an energy-sapping schedule of national appearances on behalf of Alzheimer's patients and their families.

"I consider this his unfinished work," she once told the Sacramento Bee. "If this were any other disease, my father would be out telling people what they needed to know."

In an interview with The Times in July 2000, Reagan spoke movingly about the impact of Alzheimer's on her relationship with the man who was once the nation's Great Communicator. Because Alzheimer's patients are often upset by changes in their environment, she said she learned to temper her natural ebullience around her father and make quiet entrances, to "kind of slide into a room" and to gently take her leave.

Although her father only sporadically recognized her, Reagan, whose Secret Service code name was Radiant, said she learned to find joy in their small moments together. Asked what constituted a good day with him, she responded: "When I get several smiles and laughter. There's nothing nicer than the sound of his laughter."

In advocating more research spending, she always held out the hope that somehow science would find a way to erase the fog of dead brain cells so he could speak with her again.

In a sad coincidence, Reagan was undergoing melanoma treatment at St. John's in mid-January when her father was admitted to the hospital for surgical repair of a broken hip. She never saw him while he was there, however.

On Wednesday, former First Lady Nancy Reagan praised her stepdaughter.

"Ronnie and I loved Mermie very much. We will miss her terribly," she said, employing the former president's nickname for his daughter. "Like all fathers and daughters, there was a unique bond between them. Maureen had his gift of communication, his love of politics, and when she believed in a cause, she was not afraid to fight hard for it."

Reagan's melanoma was diagnosed in 1996 when it appeared as a large, pigmented mole on the back of her right thigh. After extensive testing, she underwent a grueling year of therapy with intravenous interferon, a naturally occurring protein that helps the body fight viral infections and some cancers. The side effects were so severe that she did not see her father during that time. However, after treatment, doctors determined that the disease was in remission and she got back to her family and her Alzheimer's activism.

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